An Introduction to Porcupines

An introduction to Porcupines

On a recent and enjoyable tour of far-flung relatives I rediscovered the argument gene that my father’s family all seem to share.  We wouldn’t exactly start an argument in an empty room, but the first unfortunate to step through the door and make an assertion will generally be greeted with a barrage of inventive reasons for thinking the exact opposite.   That is, of course, irrespective of whether we agree with them or not.

My father himself, whose generation had been inspired by the out-of-the-box polemics of Chesterton and the thrilling growth of a pre- and post-war Catholic intelligentsia, argued his way across the globe as a rating in His Majesty’s navy in the second half of the war and continued to argue about faith, politics, economics, sex, music etc. with teaching colleagues, siblings, offspring, and random people he met in the pub pretty much until the day before his death fifty years later.   At his funeral there was no-one present who had not shared an argument and the accompanying hangover with him.

Though lacking his creativity, aplomb and experience I in my turn entered the world of the Saturday night argument in the late seventies and took up the baton in defending the faith.  My best friend at the non-denominational City of London School was a very bright post-Catholic.  Though a lot of our Jewish friends would have been observant in some form, I was one of comparatively few church-goers – eventually graduating when I moved to university from serving the Latin Mass (thurifer, definitely best job) at St. Monica’s in Palmers Green to singing in the choir.   CAMRA was making a positive impact on the alcoholic aspirations of a new generation and at school discos we pogoed to Anarchy in the UK and Pretty Vacant.   Since I not only lacked girlfriend, sporting prowess and motorbike, but worse, studied classics and didn’t read newspapers, my conversational range and tolerance of alcohol was limited, but nevertheless we did (at least in my memory) comparatively often end up at 2:00 in the morning discussing the existence of God, even on those evenings whose latter hours were spent hugging the porcelain.  I don’t think any of us changed our minds as a result of these arguments, but we respected the reasonableness of one another’s points of view.

Suffice it to say that before going to university, while there and after joining the Jesuits, I have been interested in argument, ancient and modern, in logic and (increasingly) in the frameworks within which we reason.   Why is it exactly that we so often fail to convince one another about things that matter, however neat our arguments?   In these essays we’ll try and look at a number of examples and identify why and how far arguments do and don’t work in matters of religion and ethics.  I will want in particular to focus on what I will label ‘porcupine arguments’.   The term is drawn from Iain McGilchrist’s fascinating and elegant book, The Master and his Emissary.  I hope its force and its usefulness will be apparent from this first example of a common argument about religion.

Religious experience explained…

I’d like to begin with one particular paradox that inevitably surfaces in arguments about religion.  However powerful a person’s own reasons for believing they have encountered the divine may be for them, those reasons can never be sufficient reasons for someone else to believe that they have actually done so.   I can make no claim about my religious experience that will persuade someone else to take those claims as evidence for the existence of a deity – rather than as evidence of a disturbed brain, evolutionary inferential patterns or the myriad other ways to deconstruct such reports at third hand.

Of course, it is very likely that the richness of my experience sometimes includes material which is actually illusory.  Nevertheless, since not all of it can be illusory (pace Matrix-lovers) we are left with a serious puzzle for the human condition.  The things which most specifically and most powerfully motivate me to live in one way rather than another cannot be communicated.  The experience that matters most to me cannot be used as material in an argument with others, because it is inaccessible to them.   Fans of Wittgenstein will hear the unseen beetle rattling around in the matchbox at this point.

… Brains and Reality…

This is where Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary comes in.  His text offers a refreshing alternative to that dominant view in the popular philosophy of mind which deconstructs the human self into jostling subroutines competing for success in an evolved super-computer.   In so doing it raises interesting questions about the relationship between our modes of reasoning and reality itself.  In particular it suggests an alternative take on that problem of arguments about religious experience, and another way of thinking about the beetle and the box.

Let me briefly set out what I have understood from McGilchrist’s text with the caveat (which applies to all that you read here) that I am not a field expert in anything and therefore (a) apologise in advance for any inadvertent misrepresentations and (b)recommend that for a full and satisfying account you read the book yourself.

McGilchrist gave up a career as an English academic in order to study medicine and to specialize in psychiatry and his book is the fruit of a twenty-year-long personal project to understand better the way in which our brains construct our experience of the world.  His starting point was a question mark over the long-standing assumption that of the two lobes of the brain the left-lobe, where most of our language is centred, is the more advanced, while the right-lobe, which is largely silent, is the more primitive and (by implication) less worth paying attention to.

He observes that the two lobes actually exercise complementary forms of attention to the world, which have evolved to help us negotiate our complex environment.  The corpus callosum that divides them acts sometimes as a mediator, but more often as an inhibitor, so that one form of attention does not disturb the other.  Through evidence garnered from the differing behaviours of patients who have lost the use of one or other lobe or experimentees in whom one or other lobe’s activity has been suppressed he offers a rather more interesting characterization of the two than silent-primitive and talkative-advanced.

The right lobe, for instance, is where our attention to the world is immediate, rich and whole.  The left lobe, in contrast presents an abstraction of the world, analysed, serialized, ready to be translated into language.  While our right brain mode of attention is constantly open to the new and unexpected, our left-brain mode is focused, predictive and goal directed.  Interestingly, and significantly for a wider cultural thesis that he advances in the second half of his book, while the right lobe is aware of the left lobe, the left lobe with its superior capacity for language, believes that it is alone.

Much of the evidence for these claims depends on the interpretation of the behaviour and the apparent cognitive capacities of stroke victims in whom one or other lobe is affected.  McGilchrist presents the drawings of left-impaired victims in which objects are plainly represented as wholes, with shape and depth, while the drawings of right-impaired victims are fragmented, without shape or order to the elements of the object represented.  Again, those without the use of the left lobe continue to recognize both sides of the body as ‘mine’, while those whose right lobe is damaged, will frequently disown the left-hand side of the body as something alien.

McGilchrist makes some interesting links with the German phenomenological tradition from Hegel through Heidegger to Scheler.  He suggests that this comparatively late fork in the history of western philosophy represents the attempt of our silent selves to articulate an understanding of human experience that gives due primacy to its right-lobe aspect, where immediacy, depth and openness to reality lie.  This contrasts with the family of philosophies going back to Plato (so McGilchrist) which favour abstraction over immediacy, analysis over holistic perception and argument over experience.

I personally don’t think he’s being fair to Plato (I’m biased).  But he does go on to suggest that our wordy, analytic, digitalizing culture is actually a product of our collective left lobes and these masters of the universe are cheerfully writing the more fundamental half of our humanity out of the script.  And here his thesis did seem to ring a few bells.  But it was the porcupines that really hit me, and they will be scuttling in the background for the rest of these essays.

… and Porcupines

McGilchrist describes the following experiment.  The same person is shown a simple syllogism (three step argument) under three conditions: both lobes functioning, left lobe suppressed and then right lobe suppressed.  The syllogism runs as follows:

All Monkeys climb trees

The porcupine is a monkey

Conclusion: The porcupine climbs trees.

McGilchrist observes that, annoyingly, there actually are porcupines that climb trees, though this was unknown either to the experimenters or the subjects.   The important thing is, how does the subject react?

With both lobes functioning, the typical response is ‘but porcupines aren’t monkeys’ or ‘but porcupines don’t climb trees’.  The same again with the left lobe suppressed.  However, when the right lobe is suppressed, there remains a vague sense that something is amiss, but now there is an inability to find any flaw in the argument.  For McGilchrist this is a clear indication of the left-lobe tendency to construct reality around its preconceptions and their internal logic, in contrast to a right-lobe construction that gives the primacy to lived experience.

This throws an interesting light on the puzzle we started with, offering an explanation for why, when all the questions that can be asked and answered have been asked and answered, what really matters seems to remain untouched.   All those arguments for and against the existence of God (or gods) that have been rumbling around for the last three thousand years are as much about people justifying their intuitions (apologetics) as about establishing new insights (quest for truth).  The arguments have most power when we are on the common ground of the analytic search for explanations of common phenomena.   Thus Aristotle can persuade us that we need a prime mover and Darwin and his successors can persuade us that we have no need for Paley’s designer.   They work as proofs or disproofs of God’s existence if we believe, with Lucretius and Richard Dawkins, that gods only exist to explain the bits of reality that we don’t yet understand.   However such arguments are actually doing more and less than they think.  Sometimes they create thinking space for a particular quality of experience, and sometimes they close the space for that experience.  Meantime, at a different level, some human beings continue to experience a world that communicates the divine and some do not.

At its best the power of analytic reason extends the range of our experience, helps us to see more of the world than the little bit of it which we inhabit from day to day.  It is a peculiar combination of imagination and the dogged following of numbers and their logic that has enabled us to see more things in the universe than ever before.   Even a porcupine can lead us to a counter-intuitive conclusion that only later experience will confirm.  Thus Dirac’s maths in the thirties throws up the intuitively ridiculous result of negative energy, which nevertheless opens conceptual space for the experimental discovery, thirty years later, of antimatter.  At its worst it robs us of imaginative space and asks us to deny the richness and complexity of our lived experience.  Thus Plato censored Homer, because he lied about the gods, and certain kinds of music, because they corrupted the soul.  Both kinds of censorship have been imitated in later traditions, Christian, communist, rationalist and fascist – indeed this is a continual risk in any organized human group that holds having everyone on message to be of paramount importance.

Porcupines and the erosion of Reason

With this insight into our two modes of attention, it seems to me comparatively easy to find space for reasonable, though never unquestionable, claims to experience of God.  What is more difficult is to find space for the very specific claims about the divinity made by different religious groups.  Most recently I have been exploring the challenge for Catholic Christians of translating our evolved and heterogeneous language of faith into a language that might appear intelligible to the (differently) heterogeneous thought-world of modern English-speakers.   As I have gone on, this project seems ever more urgent as the common intellectual ground seems to be shifting under our feet – and in surprising ways.  Part of that shift involves the emergence of new forms of porcupine argument, arguments that are simply structured and internally coherent, but which fail to do justice to the complexity of life.

For quite a lot of western history there has been a working assumption (independent of religious affiliation) that reasonable argument can lead us a long way towards the truth about the way things are.  Most importantly there has been an assumption that we can work out together the better ways of living together.  However (and you may choose to disagree with this claim) it seems to this observer that a style of public debate has recently developed which dissolves that reasonable, universal quest into mutually incomprehensible rationalizations of entrenched positions.   Again and again spokesmen and women, secular and religious, seem to prefer to cling to any porcupine in a storm, however much human evidence or experience it ignores, simply because it has the form of an argument that justifies the preferred answer of their team.  In ancient terms, it can be compared to the triumph of rhetoric over the search for truth.  This is a very disturbing phenomenon for people like me, who like to be optimistic about our capacity to reach agreement about what matters, provided we work honestly and generously enough.

Which takes us to the purpose of these essays: namely, to let some of the porcupines out of the bottle.  My especial desire is to make a small contribution to more fruitful dialogues within Catholicism and so free it to engage more positively with the wider world.


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